Kansas Senate approves barring courts from school finance rulings

Facing a court judgment that could force the state to put millions more into schools, the Kansas Senate on Wednesday took steps to stop judges from ordering the Legislature to spend more money on education.

The Senate voted 27-13 to advance a constitutional amendment intended to preserve the exclusive right of the Legislature to make spending decisions on schools.

The amendment, which needs support from two-thirds of the Legislature, now goes to the House, where Speaker Ray Merrick described its chances for passage as a “toss-up.”

The bill passed the Senate with the minimum required number of votes. Only three Kansas City area lawmakers voted against the amendment: Democratic Sens. David Haley and Pat Pettey of Kansas City and Republican Sen. Kay Wolf of Prairie Village.

Ultimately, the amendment would need to be approved by the state’s voters to take effect. The election would be held in August 2014 or earlier.

The amendment is spurred partly by lawmakers frustrated with budget crises ignited by court decisions ordering more money poured into schools.

Supporters of amending the state constitution argued that that state has spent millions to fight such court rulings, including $2 million on the case now on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The constitutional amendment “is the only hope for our constituents to have the final voice as to whether appropriation by litigation and this endless cycle of litigation … is the way we want to go in Kansas,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican and the bill’s sponsor.

Critics of the change said the courts are the last resort for taxpayers who want hold the Legislature accountable for spending enough money on schools.

“Kansas children’s protection is in the courts,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “This amendment seeks to strip the court of its voice in holding the Legislature accountable.”

The amendment had been opposed by the Kansas City, Kan., Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts.

“A local school board should have the right to request and bring about a judicial review of state school finance provision, as is allowed under current law,” said Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg.

Although Kansas lawmakers have tried to pass similar constitutional amendments in the past, the effort gained momentum two days before this year’s legislative session began. A three-judge panel found that funding for schools didn’t pass constitutional muster. The court suggested a price that could approach $500 million more for the state.

The judges ruled that the state broke promises to increase funding under a state Supreme Court ruling from 2005. Since 2009, the court found, the Kansas Legislature and Govs. Mark Parkinson and Sam Brownback failed to provide “suitable” school funding. It ordered annual per-student funding to climb by $654.